Twenty years on, they will be reunited in the same room this week. A little older, a good deal wiser, still instantly recognisable. The England squad who won the Rugby World Cup on 22 November 2003 may have long since hung up their boots but what they collectively achieved on that damp Sydney night continues to be largely undimmed by the passing years.
Johnno, Jonny, Lol, the Fun Bus … like characters from some imperishable sitcom there remains a timeless quality to the whole thing. Not least because no one from outside South Africa or New Zealand has done it since. England may have made a couple of subsequent finals but have never scaled the same rarified heights of teamship and combined class. The longer they stand alone as the only northern hemisphere winners, the more they stand apart.
Having discussed the subject at length with Sir Clive Woodward for a book published in the summer, several of his personal observations resonated afresh this week. “If we’d sat down in 2003 and you’d said to me: ‘England won’t win another World Cup for 20 years,’ I’d have said: ‘You’ve got to be joking, that’s ridiculous,’” he told me. Well, here we are and the itch is no closer to being satisfactorily scratched.
Even for the lucky few who hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup on that distant, damp night in Sydney, it is an omission they genuinely wish someone else would rectify. “There’s a big part of me that really wants England to win the World Cup because it allows you to move on,” suggested Woodward, honest enough to admit he has not always found that easy. “While they keep stuffing it up – and they do keep stuffing it up – you look in the mirror and think: ‘I should still be there’.”
Beyond the ins and outs of the English development system, relations between the national team and the clubs and the cyclical nature of sustained top-level excellence, however, there are still two or three lessons the boys of ‘03 can teach all their modern counterparts. In The Men in the Arena, a splendid re-telling of English rugby’s most celebrated story by Peter Burns and Tom English, Martin Johnson makes the point, for example, that England were fitter than everyone else. “The myth was that we were old and slow. Our front row could all make rugby decisions and play. So we could play any style of game. That was the strength of our team.”
Will Greenwood’s view is that England were a team in the truest sense of the word: a collection of individuals who all brought something vital to the party. They were also a diverse bunch who, for the most part, were smart enough to think their way out of trouble. “We had a group of people who could problem-solve. What did Lincoln say? If he was given six hours to chop a tree down, he’d spend the first five hours sharpening his axe. We were really good axe-sharpeners.”
Of course it also helped to have generational talents such as Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Richard Hill in the mix but just as crucially there were leaders, strong characters and hyper-competitive individuals everywhere you looked. There was also the experience of past failures and the ability not to panic: the famous T-Cup – thinking correctly under pressure – had been a mantra for years.
And Woodward, love him or not, had been brilliant at adding little bits to the jigsaw. One of his lightbulb moments came when he invited Steve Redgrave into the camp to talk about his Olympic rowing experiences. The great oarsman sat there in his jeans and T-shirt and discussed his first gold medal in 1984. The amount of time he and his three crewmates spent in the boat together was relatively tiny; it was what he did outside that to try and become the best athlete in the world that really made a difference. Woodward became obsessed with the idea of every player striving to become the best player in the world in their position. Fifteen gold medallists? Not quite but England had a significant number of them.
Blend it all together and it was small wonder they arrived in Australia as pre-tournament favourites. If, in retrospect, they were a team who had peaked in the summer on tour in New Zealand and Australia, they also had the knowhow and the nerve to navigate the sudden-death hazards of final extra-time. Two decades later, Wilkinson’s winning drop-goal is the iconic snapshot everyone remembers but the approach work that delivered the opportunity was arguably even more impressive.
There is an argument that New Zealand in 1987 and 2015 were deadlier all-court teams, that South Africa in 2019 and 2023 would have been a physical match for anyone in any era. If you win a World Cup, furthermore, weaknesses tend to be airbrushed from history. But some teams stand the test of time better than others and the England side of 2003 are unquestionably still one of them. Cheers to all and sundry as they clink their glasses in London on Wednesday night. And here’s to another side from Europe emulating their achievement one day.